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Ask an MIT Professor: What Is System Thinking and Why Is It Important?

MIT Open Learning

Prof. Edward Crawley considers system thinking “the cognitive skill of the 21st century”



“System Thinking is the cognitive skill of the 21st century.”

Look around you, and you’ll see: life as we know it is becoming more and more complex.

From the iPhone in your pocket to the organizations driving public health, national defense, finance, criminal justice, and [insert just about anything else you can imagine], the world is powered by increasingly intricate systems working behind the scenes to integrate countless moving pieces into a meaningful whole.

“One of the characteristics of the 21st century is that we’re investing more in complexity, and things are just getting damn complicated,” says Professor Edward Crawley, Ford Department of Engineering, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT.

Crawley is one of the MIT lead faculty instructors for MIT xPRO’s online course on system thinking , a skill that helps organizations examine and simplify complexity, recognize patterns, and create effective solutions to challenges. He considers system thinking “ the cognitive skill of the 21st century.” We recently sat down with him to discuss system thinking and what learners can expect from his course.

What is system thinking?

Prof. Crawley explains that “system thinking is simply thinking about something as a system: the existence of entities-the parts, the chunks, the pieces-and the relationships between them.”

There are measures of both performance and complexity in system thinking. “Complexity is what we invest in: more parts, more sophisticated parts, more parts talking to more parts,” Crawley states. “Performance is the benefit that emerges.”

Who uses system thinking, and how might they use it?

“System thinking is for everyone on this side of the life-death line,” Prof. Crawley jokes. Anyone who has taken a course he teaches will tell you that he has an excellent sense of humor.

More specifically, system thinking is broadly used by:

  • Leaders who have a high-level view of how different parts of a system fit together and need to be able to step back and see how all the pieces connect.
  • Individual contributors who want to understand how the part they’re responsible for fits into the bigger picture so that they can perform at their highest potential.

While it’s true that system thinking is prevalent in STEM fields, Crawley stresses that a tremendous amount of system thinking occurs outside of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. He rattles off a list of examples to illustrate his point: “The legal system is a system, the Constitution is a system, public health is a system, national defense is a system, finance is a system.”

In a professional setting, leaders and individual contributors use system thinking all the time to understand:

  • How organizations work (e.g., team dynamics)
  • Complex technologies (e.g., smartphones and other devices)
  • The optimal ways to track, organize, and utilize information (e.g., medical records)
  • Intricate processes (e.g., the tax system: who pays taxes, how much they pay, and how the revenue is distributed)

Crawley specializes in using system thinking to understand the space system, exploring the answers to questions like: Who builds the satellites? What orbits are they in? How do they communicate with each other? How can humans produce brilliant images like those from the James Webb Space Telescope ? “Those images are an example of an emergent value proposition that resulted from NASA’s multi-year effort on the James Webb Space Telescope,” remarks Crawley.

What pedagogical methods and tools do you use to get learners comfortable with system thinking?

The big challenge in being one of the faculty instructors for MIT xPRO’s system thinking course, explains Prof. Crawley, is using examples that exhibit just the right amount of complexity. The systems need to be complicated enough that the answers aren’t too obvious but not so complicated that no one can understand how they work, even after learning the tools for system thinking.

Crawley prefers using examples that he categorizes as “middle-complexity systems that people commonly encounter in their lives.” One example is a bicycle. If a rollerblade is too simple and an automobile is overly complex, a bicycle is just right. “You want to train your mind and train your methodology to think about automobiles, but it’s a hard place to start,” says Crawley. “So you start with the middle-complexity system.”

Crawley uses these types of examples to teach students:

  • The principles underlying the system
  • The methods used to think about the system
  • The concrete tools that system thinkers activate each day

What are some challenges learners face during a system thinking course?

Nevertheless, getting comfortable with system thinking can be extraordinarily challenging for learners! Why? Because system thinking is, in essence, an entirely new way of thinking.

“You’re literally neurologically tuning up your brain. You’re creating connections between neurons that didn’t exist before because you’re developing new neural pathways that allow you to think about things differently,” states Crawley.

“I tell my class at MIT at the beginning of the term, ‘I predict that within a week or two, you’ll have headaches,’” he says with a grin. “They look at me and laugh. But sure enough, I check in with them two weeks later, and I’m right.”

What would you say to someone considering enrolling in a system thinking course?

“You’ll get over the headaches once the brain is rewired,” Prof. Crawley jokes.

On a serious note, Crawley encourages students to take a system thinking course because learning a new way of thinking about the world is of vital importance in the 21st century.

“Life is only getting more complex,” he says. If you see him in person, ask him to tell the story about how he and a colleague — two actual rocket scientists — couldn’t figure out how to make a photocopy. “That was two decades ago, and already technology was so complex that you had to be trained to operate it!” he exclaims.

With devices and organizations becoming ever more complicated, system thinking can give learners the skills to succeed.

Those skills include being able to engage in the unknown and think differently about the relationships between the parts that make up a system; ultimately, learners evolve from reductionist thinkers to integrative thinkers ready to face a limitless future.

If you’d like the opportunity to learn from Professor Crawley, as well as Professors John Sterman, Daniela Rus, and Hasma Balakrishnan, enroll in MIT xPRO’s 5-week online system thinking course .

Originally published at on September 14th, 2022.

Ask an MIT Professor: What Is System Thinking and Why Is It Important? was originally published in MIT Open Learning on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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